Member-supported news for Southern California
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Support for KPCC comes from:

A peek into Naughty Dog game creator Neil Druckmann's creative process

Ways to Subscribe

The creative director of the gaming developer Naughty Dog takes us inside his creative process for games like "The Last of Us" and "Uncharted 4."

Video games have changed a lot since the 1980s.

The graphics are increasingly realistic, the game controls are a lot more advanced and some developers are giving game players as much character development as you’d find in a lot of feature films.

One studio that’s putting a premium on storytelling in gaming is Naughty Dog. They're responsible for third-person adventure games like "The Last of Us," a zombie-like apocalypse game, and "Uncharted 4," a treasure hunting adventure game.

The creative director behind both titles is Neil Druckmann. He and his team oversees all elements of production, from writing the script to directing the actors who record the game’s dialogue and give their characters a physical performance, which is then animated.

His work has been recognized with lots of awards in the gaming world, but he’s also been honored by the Writers Guild of America, which has twice singled him out for outstanding achievement in video game writing.

Druckmann sat down with The Frame earlier this week, and began by talking about his creative process, the difference between writing for games and film/TV and how becoming a parent has changed his perspective on the games he creates. 

Interview Highlights:

At what point do you start seeing programming as storytelling? Or did you see that from the beginning? 

I think conceptually they intersect in that programming is sometimes very clear. Like, okay I need a character to jump a certain distance, you're either doing it or you're not. In that way, it's very different from writing in that it's very subjective and you're never quite sure when you're hitting the target. But, as a writer that understands programming, you understand the mechanics of the game, the permutation that a player can take because you've been working on player mechanics for so long and implementing them that then you can more easily write for them and it's easier to get in that mental shift of you're not just writing a completely linear experience. You're seeing where events can branch and what are the different possibilities of space that this character could be in and trying to fill each of those with an interesting narrative.

A lot of your games are heavily focused on character. Was that something that you felt was missing in games?

I think I've always been drawn to very character driven stories in all sorts of medium. My favorite comics are "Preacher," "Sin City" and "Y: The Last Man." Even though those have interesting plots, ultimately what I love about them are the characters and the arcs they go through. Likewise in games, the games I've always been into way back in the 80s were these adventure games that are very story and character driven like "Space Quest," "Kings Quest" and "The Secret of Monkey Island," which is one of my favorite games of all time. And it's one of my favorite stories of all time from any medium. In entering the industry, that was always in the back of my mind -- I want to push narrative. I think there's so much potential here, how can we push it? How can we leverage the kind of technology that we have. And also I was at Naughty Dog, which was already known for having such continuous world and were very character driven. I saw the potential that was there to take that technology, take the talent that we have in the studio and push very character driven experiences.

One of your first big hits was the game "The Last Of Us." It's a post-apocalyptic action adventure, survival, horror game. Can you talk about the genesis of ideas and iterations that it went through from your first conceiving of it to what it ended up being?

Yeah, the inception of it was back in Carnegie Mellon, back in Pittsburgh where George Romero lived.

Who's the filmmaker behind "The Dawn of the Dead."

And "Night of the Living Dead." The godfather of zombie cinema. And one of our professors is actually good friends with him. He set up this project where students pitched game ideas to George Romero and he would pick the best one and we would spend a semester prototyping that idea. I came up with this very loose concept of a cop that lost his daughter and meets this teenage girl and they have to travel across the country together and they would form a bond. At some point he would get so injured that you would be playing as the girl and trying to help him along. George Romero picked a totally different idea so that was this project's first failure. But then I was so intrigued with this concept that I thought maybe it could be a graphic novel. I spent like a year writing out this six issue miniseries with art. I was going to draw it myself. I pitched it to a couple publishers and it was rejected. Then at some point when I was at Naughty Dog and I was successful enough -- we just did "Uncharted 2," which was a critical and commercial success beyond anybody's expectations, including our own. Then when we were given the opportunity, do whatever you want. The sky's the limit. I said, well I have this story sitting over here that was initially conceived as a game then went to this comic. But let's start with this. Then Bruce and I would start talking about, well what would be the arc for these characters. How do you make a game that's ultimately filtered through building a relationship between a father and a daughter? It's this universal emotion that a parent feel where you know you would do anything for your child. I didn't have a kid yet even though I was about to. There were so many thoughts and fears about having a kid and I thought, if I could capture that in game there would be something really magical here.

Did you become a parent during the development of the game?

I did. Pretty early on. 

Does that change your view of what the story means to you?

Absolutely. It reinforced my ideas of what I thought about family. I grew up in this really close-knit family where you're constantly taught that you don't choose your family, but you do whatever it takes to help your family out. And that's been kind of engrained in me. But it's very different when it's your own child and you're holding this human life that you somehow created and realize you would do anything for this. Ultimately, in the story, in this game, you see that Joel, by the end of it, can do pretty horrible things in order to protect this person that now he sees as his own daughter.

There's obviously a lot of death and mayhem in the games that you design and in the game world generally. Do you feel that it's important that in that world where there's a lot of shooting and a lot of death that the story have some sort of moral compass?

Moral compass is hard. I think the story has to be honest to what you as a writer believe in. Ultimately, "The Last Of Us" with all of its violence, comes from a very deep place where I believe in all of Joel's actions. And I think -- I don't know because I don't live in a post-apocalyptic world -- that I would take similar actions to Joel if faced with those same decisions. Some of the questions about violence and whether the violence is justified in the story also depends on the kind of story that you're telling. With "The Last Of US" where violence has the same weight as the real world, that violence is very different from a pulp action game like "Uncharted" where the violence is more cartoony and more stylized. It's a stylized reality with clear good guys and clear bad guys.

Can you talk about how you cast these games and what your relationship is as a writer/director with the actors that you cast?

First, it's important to note that the stories are written during production. Unlike a film production, where the whole script is written and then you enter production, we will have an outline and then we will start production building the game. The story is written organically as the game is coming together. That's because you can't predict what's going to work for gameplay. You might have some ideas, but until you get it, what we say, "on the stick" and you're trying it out, that's where they're going to prove effective or ineffective. And then you might have to go to do some other ideas. That will inevitably make you go back to the story and rework and change some stuff.

We don't write the story chronologically, I'll usually start in the middle. With "The Last Of Us" it was the middle of the journey where Joel and Ellie were already together and we will write several scenes in succession for that area as we're building a level and as the gameplay mechanics are coming together. That's when the characters are getting defined for the first time. Then we'll have a casting call and that's where we'll bring, like for the character of Joel, dozens of actors that would come in and read.

We bring them to a soundstage where we usually do our performance capture. Unlike a normal audition where you're sitting down reading lines, we want to see how they move. What's their body signature like? Ultimately, all of that is going to be translated back to the character that the player is controlling. Then it becomes this very intimate relationship between the director and actors. The story is very personal to me and here is another person that is going to interpret the material and make it their own and there is a form of trust and letting go and being open to different interpretations that I might have. Troy Baker, who played Joel, his interpretation ended up being different than mine. At first I had a lot of resistance to that but once I opened up to it, I thought Joel became much more interesting because of it. Then you're open to improvisation and letting actors give input to the script and if there's a way to make the script even tighter. That's an organic relationship that lasts for two or three years during production of the game.

That's how long it takes to make a game? Two or three years?

"The Last Of Us" took three and a half years. "Uncharted 4," during its entire production, took a little over four years. 

If somebody were to look at a script for a game, would it look like a Word document or an Excel spreadsheet?

You actually can look at it. So "The Last Of Us" won the WGA award for best video game writing. That script, because of the requirements for the guild, looks like a film script. I think it's between 200 and 300 pages, but that just covers the major beats and they're arranged in a way that you can follow the story from beginning to end. Then there's another part of the writing which is when you're walking around the interactive parts where you might walk by a garden with gnome and one of your characters might react to seeing this gnome. You might not walk over there. You might go see something else like a trap that captures these zombie-like creatures and they would react to that. Then you might go to the gnome as a second thing and they might say something different. That part looks much more like an Excel sheet. First you try to list, what are the different things that a player could do and how many of those can I just write out? Each one of those now can turn into a conversation and you think, if they do these events out of order, would they say something different? And that turns into a conversation that if you were to parse it out, probably turns into being hundreds if not thousands of pages of dialogue.

So what does that mean for the actors? How long does it take to record their dialogue?

Months on end. Initially there's the cinematics -- those are the non-interactive parts that are purely watched or might have limited interactivity -- that are captured on the soundstage. We get their entire movement and their voice and that's translated onto the characters. The endgame dialogue -- the thing I described that happens during fully interactive sequences -- that's captured in a voiceover booth, not dissimilar to what we are in right now. I'll be in there full days just, now this happens, and they say that conversation. Then I'd have to describe to them, you did this part first so your motivation slightly shifts. Now they do that conversation that way. Or I might show them video of the level and say, you know what. You've now said all of these conversations outside of the context. Now watch the video and improvise as if you're the characters. They end up knowing the characters very well because they spend so much time in their skins that they could just riff and improvise. A lot of times those conversations make it right into the game.

When you are testing games and putting them in front of the essential equivalent of a preview audience for a filmmaker, what are the kinds of reactions that are appalling to you and what are the kinds of things that you like hearing?

The first time that we do a focus test, which is the first time a game is strung together and can even be played, it's the toughest thing ever because it's broken and it's not fun. This sequence that you're looking at has no sound effects. They might be looking at really early animation. All the nuances and subtleties of the performance are not there yet. They would see these very blocky looking characters. None of the emotional beats are hitting. None of the gameplayer beats are hitting. As a creator that's very tough but that's part of the process. Some of it might be super obvious initially and then you work toward fixing it. Then all of the sudden you'll hear, you know that scene on the couch when they're eating? That really resonated with me. It might be one person out of ten that says it and you say, okay we're on to something. It's still not hitting for these other people and you're trying to figure out what's not hitting. It might be a sequence before that has just made them check out of the story. It might not even be fixing this sequence. It might be working on the previous sequence to better set up this sequence, but you do this hundreds of times. You get people to play the game and listen to the feedback and see what's working and what's not working. Are we achieving what we set out to achieve? And if not, what are the obstacles in our way?

Hollywood, like games, has had a problem in empowering women as protagonists and empowering people of color. Is it important to you as a writer to make sure that the people in the game are women or people of color?

Absolutely. I've been talking more and more about this recently with the team. When you make a game, you have these different pillars that you're trying to balance. It's graphics, it's gameplay, it's story and you're trying not to let any one pillar overwhelm the other. You're trying to just keep all of this stuff in your mind like, how does it all work together? Recently, I realized that there's this other pillar of diversity. That's just as important as any one of these other pillars. I've kind of empowered people on the team that have made this their top priority, one of which is someone I have to give a lot of credit to, is Ashley Swidowski, our lead concept character artist, which in film terms would be our costume designer. She is constantly challenging me and pushing for diversity in our cast. Can this be a person of color? Can this be a woman? I see myself as a pretty progressive person and yet my default is a white, straight, christian male. That's interesting because I'm Jewish and yet that's the norm for me right now. It's a challenge and it requires energy to deviate from that. Therefore it's important to empower people on the team that are going to push for this pillar.

"The Last Of Us" is a game that is now being developed into a feature film. Is that something that you will write and what is the status of it?

I have been a writer on it, but right now it hasn't moved anywhere in the past couple years. 

Welcome to Hollywood.

(Laughs). The "Uncharted" film has been in development now for I think nine years so we've learned these things happen at their own time, very slowly.

Your games have won video game awards and they've also won a Writers Guild Award. Does one mean more to the other to you?

No. Awards are cool and it's great to win them. It definitely does fulfill some personal satisfaction, but ultimately the things that have been the most satisfying to me is meeting fans at conventions and hearing some crazy personal stories. Somebody approached me at the Playstation experience convention that Sony has and they told me they had this really tough part in their life where they broke their hip, got divorced, were suicidal and "The Last Of Us" helped them get through that part of their life. First, it's weird because "The Last Of Us" is bleak and depressing in its own right, but that was the form of escape that person needed and that gave them strength. Likewise, "The Last Of Us Left Behind" which is a small story in the universe of "The Last Of Us" where we reveal that one of the protagonists, Ellie, is gay. A lot of people have come to the actress who plays Ellie, Ashley Johnson, and have told her playing that game and having Ellie as this role model gave them the strength to come out to their friends. It's amazing the power of narrative and the power of interactive narrative and how much that can give people strength.

We're entering an era of augmented reality and virtual reality. Where do you think things are going and how do you see yourself fitting into that future?

It's a big unknown right now. You see this Pokemon Go thing and I don't think anyone could have predicted how explosive this could have been where you have hundreds of people lining up at a fountain to try to train their Pokemon on their iPhone. And at the same time, VR has just come out on PC and the Playstation VR is about to come out this October. I think we're going to see a revolution of sorts of a new kind of medium. I don't think it's going to replace the kinds of games that we make. I think it's going to create new kinds of experiences that people are now just starting to figure out like, how do I move in VR? Right now VR has an issue where if you walk in a traditional way like you would in a normal way where you have a screen in front of you, it's so immersive that your brain is telling you, this is real. You're moving through a space but your inner ear, because you're not moving, is saying, no you're not. Then you get nauseous. People are struggling to figure out, how do we move in a VR space? What are the different experiences that we can create? What are the tricks we can do to fool the inner ear? That's what I love. It's this big unknown and you're going to see all sorts of new experiences and all sorts of new ways to tell stories in this new space.

Stay Connected